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Support is growing for nuclear energy as a critical tool in the fight against climate that change, but a roadblock for many environmentalists is the unresolved issue of nuclear waste. Specifically, what should be done in the U.S. with the radioactive spent fuel that comes out of nuclear power plants every few years?
While exposure to radioactive waste can be dangerous, the actual volume of spent fuel is quite low. Since the 1950s, the commercial sector has generated around 83,000 metric tons of spent fuel that is currently sitting at 80 sites around the country. All of the spent fuel generated from an average U.S. reactor over a year could fit under your dining room table. Yet disposing of these wastes with care for people and the environment presents unique challenges. The international scientific and governmental community agrees that the most technologically feasible and effective way to protect the environment and public from these wastes is the construction of a deep geologic repository, which isolates waste underground for hundreds of thousands of years. We lack a long-term storage solution in the United States, which has left reactor host communities to bear the burden of spent fuel storage.
By passing the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) of 1982, Congress formalized the federal government’s responsibility to manage long-term storage of spent fuel. As a result, regulatory agencies and congressional committees settled on the construction of a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But swift and persistent pushback from the state of Nevada and other groups have left the project at a standstill. Initial opposition stemmed from issues with community, state, and Tribal engagement: the state of Nevada felt inadequately consulted. The state was partially chosen due to low political influence, and Tribal nations with deep connections to the area opposed the project. Their concerns were not properly considered. Through critical years in the Yucca Mountain project, U.S. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada gained enough influence in Congress to block the facility. Reception of waste at Yucca Mountain was supposed to begin in 1998. To this day, the government has no clear path to meet its legal obligation to accept long-term waste at Yucca Mountain and has no working plans to develop another facility.
Instead, the U.S. currently stores waste in distributed facilities around the country. After a multi-year cooling period in water, wastes are held in short-term or interim storage, awaiting transport to a permanent facility. Interim sites, often at power plants, store solid spent fuel in robust structures of concrete and steel called dry casks. Utilities, as a result of decades of experience, testing, and care for risk mitigation, manage the waste safely. Storage of spent fuel in dry casks has a flawless record; there hasn’t been a single case of dangerous radiotoxic exposure to facility workers or local communities. Experts agree: we can safely store and transport waste in dry casks for at least a century.
However, storage at reactor facilities is not a permanent solution to the spent fuel problem. There are a number of reasons why our current approach is unsustainable and unjust in its current implementation. The status quo is forcing communities to store spent fuel without prior consent and requiring plant owners and taxpayers to bear the liability. In failing its legal obligations under NWPA, the federal government has paid hundreds of millions of dollars a year to utilities, who continue to sue to recover their costs for managing waste onsite. Coupled with the $27 billion of inaccessible, unspent funds from the Nuclear Waste Fund (as established by the NWPA), inaction is proving incredibly wasteful and costly to everyone. And, without a formal process for justly siting waste outside of reactors, tribal and other underserved communities have taken on spent fuel storage when reactor facilities cannot store on site. For instance, the Prairie Island Indian Community in Southeastern Minnesota agreed to temporarily store spent fuel from a nearby power plant on their lands. The federal government promised to remove the waste 30 years ago, but the repository has since tripled in size.
We need a proactive solution to store the waste we’ve generated and to prepare the country for new waste in the future. Existing plants are already generating about 2,000 metric tons of new waste per year. While the exact impacts of existing and new reactors on future spent fuel repositories is unclear, one thing is certain: A comprehensive and just system for managing new and existing wastes is necessary for a clean energy future.
Most experts agree that reviving the Yucca Mountain project is unworkable due to community pushback, high costs, and the continued political stalemate. Therefore, we need to create a comprehensive new spent fuel storage solution centered on community engagement. Recommendations from a number of governmental and policy organizations have settled on a process called consent-based siting for new waste facilities. Most important to this approach is community involvement: The government should decide on a site for a nuclear waste repository — whether long-term or interim — after meaningful consultation with interested local community groups and state and local governments. In this approach, community engagement isn’t a roadblock, but an intrinsic component of project design. Consent-based siting is moving forward in the U.S.; the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy is restarting a process to site federal interim waste storage facilities using a consent-based approach. Currently, the office is incorporating feedback from local, state, and national stakeholders on its siting process and will eventually announce a funding opportunity for interested communities to take part.
There are also a number of alternatives to direct disposal of spent fuel. One option is to recycle or reprocess spent nuclear fuel. Over 96% of the contents of typical spent nuclear fuel can be recycled into fresh, usable fuel for nuclear power plants. Using just the uranium already mined in the U.S., reprocessing could power the entire country for thousands of years. Reprocessing reduces the need for new mining, reduces volume of waste, and reduces long-term radioactivity. France, Russia, China, and Japan all reprocess spent nuclear fuel to some extent. However, reprocessing can be complicated and expensive, and the resulting products still require a permanent repository (although with a much smaller volume).
Another solution has been proposed by companies such as Deep Isolation and NuclearSAFE, which seek to use technologies similar to those in the oil and gas industry to drill deep geologic boreholes and store waste miles underground. The waste would be encapsulated in glass for long-term durability.
In the long term, the U.S. needs to follow the lead of its nuclear peers in the development of permanent isolation of spent fuel through a consent-based process. Not only does this take the burden of spent fuel off future generations, but many analysts argue that local consent-based interim storage will fail without commitments to a permanent site. Other countries are at various stages of solidifying plans for repositories, such as Canada, Switzerland, France, Sweden, and more. The current world leader in geologic repositories is Finland, whose Onkalo facility is set to be opened next year to store waste safely for 100,000 years with the consent of local stakeholders after intensive consultation. The U.S. is behind the curve on spent fuel management. By expanding options for storage and resolving the current stalemate, we can work towards a more just and equitable future for clean energy.
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